By Aaron Maasho
ASMARA (Reuters) - The latest batch of recruits to Eritrea's national service have been told it will last no longer than 18 months, relatives said, raising hopes the indefinite conscription that forces thousands of young men to flee every month may be ending.
The Horn of African nation introduced mandatory 18-month national service for 18 to 50-year-olds in 1995, two years after seceding from Ethiopia, to help in the reconstruction effort following a 30-year liberation war.
The duty comprised of six months military training, then a year of working on development projects.
But Asmara has maintained unlimited service ever since a two-year border war broke out with Ethiopia in 1998, with the dispute dragging on despite the signing of a ceasefire in 2000.
Rights group and Western governments say it amounts to indefinite military conscription that forces Eritreans to flee the country, often driving them to make the perilous trip across the Sahara desert and Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Tens of thousands have wound up in Europe, making Eritreans one of the main constituencies among refugees and migrants on that continent.
However, the announcement at a graduation ceremony for conscripts on July 13, in the midst of a dramatic thawing of relations with Eritrea's giant neighbour, has raised hopes it is being capped.
"Last week, they were told that they won't serve beyond 18 months because the dynamics have changed," one family member of a conscript who had just been recruited told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Another person confirmed the announcement at the ceremony, attended by President Isaias Afwerki.
Eritrean information minister Yemane Ghebremeskel did not deny the reports, but said there had been no formal announcement, noting that it was "early days" in the rapprochement with Ethiopia.
"Policy announcements of this significance are invariably made through our official outlets and that has not been done so far," he told Reuters.
Earlier this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Eritrean leader signed a historic deal in Asmara declaring an end to their "state of war", one of the longest military stalemates in Africa.
The neighbours agreed to open embassies, develop ports and resume flights, concrete measures that have swept away two decades of hostility in a matter of weeks.
The Asmara government insists conscription is vital for national security, saying it fears attack by Ethiopia.
The president said at the ceremony earlier this month that it had "special significance" because it was occurring after Eritrea and Ethiopia had made peace.
In Asmara, some people told Reuters they were awaiting official announcements declaring an end to their duty.
"I have been in service for the last 20 years and I am proud of the role I played," one resident said. "But hopefully we will now be friends with our Ethiopian brothers, rather than enemies, and I hope to move on with my life."
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, Editing by Maggie Fick, William Maclean)